Department of Defense stands CBRN-ready alongside state, local authorities

The U.S. Department of Defense has taken action to identify needs and address capability gaps regarding its support of civil authorities in covering issues such as chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) response, according to recent testimony on Capitol Hill. 

Specifically, DOD officials report that planning has been completed on addressing not just CBRN, but also complex catastrophes and wildland firefighting, said Joseph W. Kirschbaum, director of Defense Capabilities and Management for the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which oversees DOD evaluations. 

“Additionally, DOD officials told us that future planning efforts will include additional branch plans addressing issues such as pandemic influenza and infectious diseases and civil disturbance operations,” Kirschbaum testified June 10 before the House Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications Subcommittee.

In protecting the homeland, DOD must work to sustain capabilities to assist U.S. civil authorities in protecting U.S. airspace, shores, and borders, and in responding effectively to domestic CBRN incidents that result from man-made and natural disasters. Over the last year, natural disasters – including record snowfalls, widespread flooding, destructive tornadoes and the expected above-average wildfire season -- have heightened federal lawmakers’ interest in how well the military and civil authorities collectively respond to CBRN, cybersecurity and other disasters and threats.

Previously, the GAO found that– from March 2010 through December 2014 – the DOD was lacking in certain areas to successfully support civil authorities and to be prepared to provide rapid response when called upon during man-made and natural disasters.

For instance, the GAO found in 2013 that two combatant commands had not identified civil-support capabilities because they were waiting until the Federal Emergency Management Agency completed planning efforts in 2018. At that time, the GAO recommended that DOD develop an interim set of specific capabilities that could be provided to prepare for and respond to complex catastrophes. 

The DOD agreed with that recommendation and “DOD officials reported as of June 2015 that Northern Command and Pacific Command had updated their plans to incorporate complex catastrophes, including identifying capabilities that would be available to the lead federal agency during such an event,” Kirschbaum said.

“DOD has partially addressed GAO’s recommendations by updating its strategy and guidance, and the department is drafting an instruction on dual-status commanders,” he said.

In acknowledging the improvements, U.S. Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), chairwoman of the subcommittee, said data has shown there needs to be “much greater clarification in roles and responsibilities” in civil-military responses. 

“How do we make sure the chain of command understands their duties? I know there can be turf battles and misunderstandings, so how do we fix them?” asked McSally, a U.S. Air Force veteran.

“Yes, during catastrophes, it can be chaotic,” testified Robert G. Salesses, DOD’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for Homeland Defense Integration and Defense Support of Civil Authorities. “Education and training are critical and we spend a lot of time educating and training. 

“DOD has made significant improvements in its preparedness to support civil authorities and is now better prepared to do so than at any other time in our nation’s history,” Salesses testified. “DOD plays a supporting but important role in the national response system and we are ready to support.” 

Regarding CBRN, Salesses said DOD has developed a wide range of response capabilities and has trained to rapidly employ them “in support to civil authorities to help save lives in the aftermath of a CBRN incident.” 

He testified that the department’s CBRN Response Enterprise – which is comprised of almost 17,000 military personnel -- currently consists of: 

57 National Guard Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Teams (one in each state and territory and two in California, Florida, and New York); 

17 National Guard CBRN Enhanced Response Force Packages stationed in Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, Oregon, Puerto Rico, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin; 

10 National Guard Homeland Response Forces (one stationed in each of the 10 FEMA regions);

One Defense CBRN Response Force; and 

Two Command and Control CBRN Response Elements. 

The CBRN Response Enterprise provides critical capabilities such as detection and assessment of CBRN hazards; casualty search and extraction; casualty decontamination; emergency medical, patient triage, trauma care, and surgical and intensive medical care; fatality recovery; ground and rotary-wing air patient movement; security; command and control; engineering; logistics; transportation; and aviation lift, Salesses said. 

Additionally, the DOD has published a standing domestic CBRN Response EXORD that establishes a response posture system for the federal components of the CBRN Response Enterprise, and provides the commanders of U.S. Northern Command and U.S. Pacific Command with authorities to conduct Federal CBRN response operations in support of a lead federal agency, such as FEMA, he said.

“We are already working with many other federal agencies,” Salesses said. “In particular, DOD is responsible, along with HHS and the VA, to support national medical situations like airlifting critical care patients, establishing medical staging stations, or for whatever we might be able to supply.” 

He called it a “fascinating system” and said previous events such as Superstorm Sandy have enabled the department to refine its processes. 

Added Kirschbaum, the department “has made critical progress and plans to do more.”

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